Following the Trail of Biblical Lore in Jordan
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“You know why Moses was lost for 40 years in the desert? Our tour guide Abraham looked around at us. When no one answered, he explained, “Of course! Because he did not have a guide like me.” Needless to say, this put us in a good mood as we drove from Amman, Jordan’s capital, to Mount Nebo, or ‘Pisgah’ as it is known in the Bible – some half an hour drive from Amman.
Famous as the site where Moses is believed to have been buried Mount Nebo, 817 m (2,680 ft) above sea level, is one of the most revered sites in Jordan. It is believed that from this high point Moses viewed the panorama of the Promised Land. From then on, the site has been continually associated with the last days of Moses.
For centuries pilgrims, many of them well known and famous, have flocked to the site to pay homage to Moses – the giant of the Old Testament – and to enjoy the fantastic view.
The pilgrims see what Moses saw when he looked across the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea – the rooftops of Jericho, Bethlehem and Jerusalem beyond.
The late Pope Paul II was the most recent of these renowned visitors who in the year 2000 travelled to this holy site. A memorial commemorating his visit stands at the entrance to a pathway paved in the shape of an olive tree leading to this historic site.
Sixty years of excavation on the hilltop of Mount Nebo have revealed a small square church built in the 4th century by the early Christians and later expanded to a large religious complex of a Basilica and a large Monastery. Constructed to commemorate the place of Moses’ death, it became one of the famous Christian sites on the globe. Inside the church was uncovered one of the most magnificent mosaic floors in the world.
The church, to some extent restored, is administered by the Franciscan Order and is a significant religious shrine for believers. Many make a journey to this spot just to live in the memory of the last days of this Prophet.
The restoration work preserved for future generations this Monument of the Faith and brought new life to a sanctuary constructed in ancient times to honour Moses, the only Prophet who spoke to God. Since September 4, 1976, the annual feast of Moses is celebrated and the Christian community join with the Franciscan Fathers in this ritual of solemnity.
Standing on a platform in front of the church, like the other tourists around us, we were enthralled by the inspiring and breath-taking panorama across the western landscape. For those with religious convictions it is a memorable experience; for others it is an enjoyment of a stunning vista.
For tourists and religious travellers nearby Madaba is another important stop on the trail of Biblical lore. Here, under almost every ancient dwelling lies a fine mosaic floor, many of which are now in the town’s museum. Called ‘the City of Mosaics’, Madaba is renowned for its contemporary Church of Saint George, rebuilt over an ancient church, featuring a wonderfully vivid 6th century Byzantine mosaic map, showing Jerusalem and the other holy sites.
The map is made up of 2 million pieces of coloured stone and most of its original 25 X 5 m (67 X 16.5 ft) still can be seen. It depicts hills and valleys and towns as far away as the Nile Delta.
From Madaba it was only a short distance to the Dead Sea then north to Bethany Beyond the Jordan where John baptised Jesus Christ. This area opposite Jericho has a profound meaning to religious travellers. The archaeological discoveries in 1996 have proved beyond doubt that the area is the Biblical ‘Bethany Beyond the Jordan’.
The remains of early Christian churches a short distance from the Jordan River have been uncovered and Elijah’s Hill has been identified. There are steps that lead down to a branch of the Jordan River that only fills out when the Jordan overflows. This is believed to be the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Numerous new churches are being built on this spot, which is only a few minutes walk from the Jordan River. The visit of Pope John Paul in 2000 to the site has given it even more of a religious significance.
Recently, the area has emerged as a major new destination for religious travellers. Jordan is spending more than US$7 million to build a traditional marketplace and a memorial to John the Baptist.
Leaving the Biblical sites behind we drove for a few minutes to the Dead Sea to bathe in its mineral saturated waters before returning to Amman and the 21st century world. It was as if we had travelled in one day across a span of thousands of years- from the time of the Prophets to our modern age. It was a day when the Bible came alive and the Biblical age had become a reality.